100 Linden Ave., Wilmette
In Chicago we’ve grown to expect the unexpected when it comes to our architecture. We rose out of the ashes of a fire that engulfed our city and then went on to build the world’s first skyscrapers. We’ve both imported and exported architects from around the world of great prominence, and we have the buildings to prove it. Yet despite all of this, we never expect a building quite like the Bahá’í Temple.
Gleaming white and grand yet delicate, it’s covered inside and out in intricate lace-like carvings of Persian origins – giving new meaning to Chicago’s reputation for diverse architecture. It is one of only seven Bahá’í temples in the world. Each temple is different, but they’re all unified by a common plan: a series of gardens, encircling a nine-sided building, covered by a single dome representing the “unity of all people and religions under God.”
The Bahá’í faith originated in Iran (Persia) towards the end of the 19th century and is held together with such ideas as world peace and equality among all people. The religion was first introduced to the US at the World’s Parliament of Religions held in 1893 in conjunction with the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. A small congregation in Chicago developed along with plans for building a temple.
The temple’s architect, Louis Bourgeois, dreamed of designing a temple long before he himself became a Bahá’í or learned of the plans to build a Bahá’í temple just outside of Chicago in Wilmette, IL. Bourgeois grew up in Canada, but traveled extensively – going to school at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, visiting countries like Egypt, Greece, Turkey and Iran, and living in New York, California and Chicago. For a short time in Chicago, he worked under architect Louis Sullivan. When looking at the Bahá’í Temple’s ornamentation it’s hard not to think about Sullivan. What we think of today as iconic Sullivan motifs, decorate much of the building (especially seen on the interior columns supporting the dome). It took Bourgeois eight long obsessive years to complete his design for the temple. Many of his drawings spanned 90ft long pieces of paper. It was up to craftsman John Earley of Rosslyn, VA to execute the drawings into concrete and carefully deliver them 700 miles to Wilmette via train. Earley once described Bourgeois’s drawing method as follows:
“. . . Mr. Bourgeois stretched out on the floor a great sheet of paper and with his pencil tied to the end of a long stick he drew in great sweeps, in a manner never to be forgotten, the interlacing ornament of the dome. One line through another, under and over, onward and upward until the motif was completed. Never have I seen a greater feat of draftsmanship nor a more interesting draftsman than Mr. Bourgeois. Most surprising of all perhaps is the approximation to accuracy, which he maintained in these great drawings in spite of the disadvantages under which he worked. He was obliged to stand on the drawing which he was making and his only view of the whole was from the top of a step ladder.”
Dedicated in 1953, it took thirty years to complete the temple. Though now over fifty years old, the Bahá’í Temple will surely continue to surprise us for years to come.